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Dawn Staley diary: Why South Carolina’s players are standing strong in their protest

Staley speaks on why her Gamecocks are sitting for the national anthem and how they handled a midseason COVID-19 scare

With college basketball back, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is picking up where she left off. For the first time in school history, the Gamecocks started the year as the No. 1 team in the nation. South Carolina is currently 8-1 and ranked No. 5 (Associated Press).

Throughout the season, Staley will share her thoughts with The Undefeated, chronicling a season that will be unlike any other in college basketball history. In this installment, Staley discusses being confronted with a COVID-19 scare for the first time this season, her thoughts on the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol and why her players have chosen to sit during the national anthem to shine a light on racial inequality in America.

I was in my office when I saw what was happening and taking place at the U.S. Capitol.

To hear everything that’s coming out of what took place last Wednesday is truly disheartening. It really is. It’s disheartening because it didn’t just happen spontaneously. No. It was planned, and it was executed perfectly in their eyes. Perfectly. Their actions have left us with a big dark cloud over our democracy, and I don’t know if we’ll ever be the same. That’s a blemish in our American history.

The majority of our players has sat during the playing of the national anthem every game this season – a decision made by our players to bring awareness to racial injustice in our country. If opposing teams choose to play the anthem during the time we’re in the locker room, then we choose to stay in the locker room.

I talked to [South Carolina associate] Coach Lisa Boyer about this on Wednesday. She told me, ‘I love our country. That’s why I stand, because I love our country. I wouldn’t want to live in any other country.’

I love our country, too. I don’t like what our country has come to, or what our country has been, but I’d like to think that there are people in our country that’s going to lead us more in a unified way than a divisive way, and I’m here for that.

A couple weeks ago, a friend and retired army general sent me an email about his thoughts on the anthem – on people kneeling, or sitting, or doing something other than standing like we used to do. I didn’t read it for a long time. I just wasn’t ready to read it because I don’t think I settled down enough to put myself in that place to read it, and to process it. I just never had that space to do that. I’m weird like that.

But when I sat down to do it, and I’m reading it, processing it, I’m thinking this is pretty good because no one has ever given me that take on it.

Let me just preface this, I think the world of this general. He’s a leader amongst leaders in that he understands the full spectrum of it. He tries to get others to understand the meaning of standing for the national anthem, and he basically said it’s 90 seconds of us being in a ritual of doing it, and what it stands for. What it stands for is the one time that we all can stand in unity. I get that.

I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to share this with our team, so I did that on Jan. 12. I sent everybody the email, and asked them to text me their raw thoughts and reactions to it individually – probably 90% of the team did.

From the responses that I was getting, it seemed like they thought I was saying stand for the national anthem, and I would never ask them to stand. I would never.

When I asked them if they thought I was asking them to stand, some of them said yes, and I said, ‘No, I wasn’t asking you to do that.’ I said, ‘It’s in an effort to understand. You’re sitting, and I understand why you’re sitting, but in order for us to come to an understanding, we have to see what other people are saying whether they are on your side, or not on your side, or if they’re in the middle.’

We can’t just sit and not take in information. We can’t just sit and not contribute to changing, to help people change their thoughts on why we’re sitting. We actually have to contribute to society so we have tangible things that we can do to get people to understand your side of things. I don’t want to push the issue, but also I want them to learn that there are people who are supporting without agreeing, and we need more of those people to just speak up and hear what they have to say, because those are the people that can help.

I wanted to share the response of one of our players. This sums up pretty much everybody:

I have a lot of raw thoughts on the message. Although I appreciate his point of view, I believe it is flawed in a way that he means to find the path of least resistance, which in an ideal world would be great, but not in a way that compromises the objective of the protests. In a way, looking for an approach that is normal in a time that is far from normal is far-fetched.

Bringing up the point that it would be best if everyone stood could actually work in an opposite way, which he alluded to, because it would be a performative act. What’s the point of pretending that this country is together just to make people happy? The path of least resistance has rarely been able to provide real change. Rituals are put in place to bring light to a certain mantra. In this case, freedom, unity.

I do not understand standing up for a ‘work in progress’ when there’s no notable work at the governmental level. We do not applaud a work that is unfinished – the same way we do not applaud America for simply seeing the problem and making no notable changes to the system. My last thoughts are if we should stand for ‘those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree,’ then kneeling is a sign of just that.

That’s pretty powerful, and my heart is full. My heart is full when I read that because their symbol of sitting is packed in that. It’s packed right in that. There’s no disrespect to the flag or anything wrapped up in that. That is her why, and until we’re able to come to the table with tangible things that change the way that people are treated – people of color, Black people, minorities – how they’re treated in this world, in our country, then I think our players will be open to that. Until that happens, they stand strong in their protest.

Making strides on the court

As we go deeper into conference play, it’s really hard to tell how much of our potential we’ve reached so far this season. I think we make huge strides in certain areas, and then if we’re not on it in all areas it lacks, and then it’s just a push-pull type of thing.

Here’s what I like. I think the transition offense we’ve gotten a lot better with Destanni Henderson just pushing up that ball down the floor, and she’s gained confidence. If I could take any area, or any player, having confidence, it is that position. She can get everything going. Everything starts with her and her ability to get us a jump start on both sides of the ball.

We’ve won without Aliyah playing extremely well. We’ve won without Zia playing extremely well. We actually have won without Destanni playing extremely well, but we know that when she plays extremely well, we’ve got a really good shot of at least one or two other people playing well because of her play. That’s encouraging to see, to see her finally come into her own and do the thing that she does best, and that utilizes her speed.

A Covid scare

In a normal year, we would not fathom traveling on a game day. Ever. But we’ve done it twice this season. First with Kentucky on Jan. 11 and then against Vandy Jan. 14.

We got that dreaded call, that a player had tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 6, a day before we were supposed to play Georgia and I’m like, ‘OK. Well, what’s next?’

I called the player that had a positive result and just asked her how she’s feeling. First and foremost I just want her to be OK, and not have any symptoms and be impacted by it. And then, psychologically speaking we wanted her to be OK, but she felt bad because we’re shut down.

She was like, ‘I’m feeling great.’ She was like, ‘I don’t have it though. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t gone anywhere. I was around three other players the whole time.’ She was like, ‘I don’t have it.’

I knew that, just from Nick Saban’s false positive case in October, that having to go on that protocol of a positive test, and then we go into that three consecutive days of negatives, means it’s a false positive. That’s what it ended up being.

Basically, it is what it is because it’s going to happen whether we like it or not, or whether we try to turn our heads and think if we don’t look at it, maybe it won’t happen.

I did get some text messages from a couple of players, and basically out of frustration. ‘What do we do now?’ And then, ‘No. Not us.’ Then you have to talk them off the ledge and say, ‘Remember we talked about this a few months ago, and staying mentally strong, and being mentally tough throughout it, and being able to pivot?’ And she said, ‘Yes, but it still doesn’t feel good.’

I told them you’ve got to let the process run its course. We’ve got a protocol that we’ve got to follow. It could be short and it could be long. We just have to be ready for it. Such has been the season.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.